A new bill introduced on Wednesday could make California the first state to ban discrimination based on caste, one of the oldest social stratifications in the world.
This bill SB403, introduced by state Sen. Aisha Wahab (D), would add caste as a protected category in already existing nondiscrimination laws. California laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, disability, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and other characteristics in public schools, state programs or activities, and employment and housing opportunities.
The caste system is a structure of oppression that originated in South Asia centuries ago and divides people based on birth or descent, granting power and privilege to upper castes while repressing lower castes. Caste discrimination is illegal in India today, but it still impacts Dalits, the lowest caste in the hierarchy, both in India and other South Asian countries. Casteism is pervasive and entrenched all over the world, including in the U.S.
A 2016 report by Equality Labs, an anti-caste organization led by Dalits, found that two out of three Dalits in the U.S. “reported being treated unfairly at their workplace because of their caste.” Meanwhile, 25% of Dalits who responded to the survey said they experienced verbal or physical assault based on their caste.
California’s lawsuit against Cisco Systems Inc. in 2020 was groundbreaking in opening widespread conversations about caste discrimination in the U.S. According to Vice, it was the first time in history that a case was brought forward by a U.S. government department against a private company for caste discrimination.
The lawsuit spurred massive solidarity among others at the company and prompted 250 Dalit employees from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Netflix to come forward about their experience with discrimination from upper-caste colleagues.
While Dalits and caste abolitionists nationwide have expressed support for the passage of legislation to ensure protections against caste discrimination, other groups have expressed opposition to some of the efforts. In a statement, the Hindu American Foundation claimed that California’s bill “unfairly maligns, targets and racially profiles select communities on the basis of their national origin, ethnicity and ancestry for disparate treatment.”
But the bill to end caste discrimination in California is “a social justice and civil rights issue,” Wahab said, according to the Associated Press, emphasizing that people came to the U.S. to be free and pursue the American dream without disruption to their lives.
“This legislation primarily protects millions who live in silence and have never had such protections because there is little understanding of this issue. This bill is about protecting people who are vulnerable,” Wahab added.
The move in California comes a month after Seattle became the first city to pass legislation outlawing caste discrimination. Similar efforts to stop caste discrimination have been ongoing at colleges and universities nationwide. In 2021, Harvard University added caste protections for its graduate student workers, and in December, Brown University became the first Ivy League to add caste protections to its nondiscrimination policies.